Sunday, March 31, 2019

Some should be sung often. . .

I was doing some reading in hymnody when a line popped out at me.  In congregational song, some hymns must be sung often. . . Now there is some good advice.  Some hymns, though not always the ones considered favorites, must be sung often because they are so profound and teach the faith as we sing them.  These are core songs of the faith, some of which are reflected in the appointed hymns of the day.  They may not directly tell the story of the Gospel but they are certainly reflective of the Gospel for that day and yet, even moreso, they belong to the core or central body of hymnody which must be retained for us to be who we are.

Singing is not just for fun or enjoyment but is a central expression of life of the church.  Singing is also proclamation, one of the most profound ways we confess the faith. The Lutheran Church has just such a body of hymns, so central to our identity that to lose them is to lose part of that identity.  These core hymns or Kernlieder belong not to a particular time but to all time.  Similar to these core hymns has been the acknowledgement that certain hymns belong in the hymnals of every denomination.  This is surely a good thing and I do not mean to disparage such a list of common hymns but this is not exactly what I am talking about.  These sturdy hymns of old are not only strong in tune (the usual  way hymns become favorites) but in text -- that is, in what they confess.

The truth is that even if you sing 5-6 hymns per week, that is still a small number and, since the real estate for hymns on Sunday morning is valuable, we need to be careful in our choice of hymns to make sure we are using our resources wisely and not wasting the people's time with hymns that may not be bad but may not be particularly good either.  Now not every hymns has to say everything but what it says should be sturdy, solid, and meaty -- well connected to the lectionary and effective in confessing and teaching the faith.  Hymns are never neutral.  They say something and what they say must be judged according to the faith.

The truth is that you can judge a great deal by what a person's favorite hymn is and a great deal about a congregation by what hymns they love to sing.  This is not about musical taste but about the faith that is sung -- what it is and whether it is consistent with our creeds and symbols.  Indeed, one of the basic problems with many hymns but especially praise songs is that they don't say much at all and what they do say expresses more feeling than substance.  While that is not universally true, it is typically true and explains why such songs do not have the staying power of the old hymns.

The inestimable Pastor Rick Stuckwisch has prepared a list of 60 or so and I have grown to appreciate his list.  While I might quibble about a choice or two, it is a good list on which to begin to build.  If you are in a Lutheran congregation in which these hymns might be considered new (though none of them are recent), it is a place to begin as we teach the faith through song.  The good doctor has also listed them by tier and suggested that they be sung a minimum number of times per year as to remain part of the very familiar hymnody within the life of the parish.  You take a look at his list and tell me what you think.  By the way, you can listen to Dr. Stuckwisch on this very topic by clicking here.

First Tier (at least six times per year)

Savior of the Nations, Come (LSB 332)
O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright (LSB 395)
A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth (LSB 438)
Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying (LSB 516)
Salvation unto Us Has Come (LSB 555)
Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice (LSB 556)
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (LSB 656)
Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart (LSB 708)

Second Tier (at least five times per year)

Of the Father’s Love Begotten (LSB 384)
To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord (LSB 406)
My Song Is Love Unknown (LSB 430)
Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands (LSB 458)
Triune God, Be Thou Our Stay (LSB 505)
O Love, How Deep (LSB 544)
Lord Jesus Christ, with Us Abide (LSB 585)
O Lord, We Praise Thee (LSB 617)
At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing (LSB 633)
Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word (LSB 655)
Lord of Our Life (LSB 659)
Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me (LSB 683)
I Walk in Danger All the Way (LSB 716)
To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray (LSB 768)
Praise the Almighty (LSB 797)
May God Bestow on Us His Grace (LSB 823)

Third Tier (at least four times per year)

O Lord, How Shall I Meet You (LSB 334)
Jesus, Grant That Balm and Healing (LSB 421)
Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle (LSB 454)
Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord (LSB 497)
In the Shattered Bliss of Eden (LSB 572)
Thy Strong Word (LSB 578)
These Are the Holy Ten Commands (LSB 581)
God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It (LSB 594)
All Christians Who Have Been Baptized (LSB 596)
All Who Believe and Are Baptized (LSB 601)
From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee (LSB 607)
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (LSB 621)
Wide Open Stand the Gates (LSB 639)
Sing with All the Saints in Glory (LSB 671)
O God, My Faithful God (LSB 696)
From God Can Nothing Move Me (LSB 713)
Evening and Morning (LSB 726)
Rejoice, My Heart, Be Glad and Sing (LSB 737)
Jesus, Priceless Treasure (LSB 743)
In the Very Midst of Life (LSB 755)
Our Father, Who from Heaven Above (LSB 766)
Sing Praise to God, the Highest Good (LSB 819)
O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth (LSB 834)
We All Believe in One True God (LSB 954)
Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old (LSB 960)

Fourth Tier (at least three times per year)

All My Heart Again Rejoices (LSB 360)
Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain (LSB 487)
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest (LSB 498)
Father Most Holy (LSB 504)
Christ Sits at God’s Right Hand (LSB 564)
Now, My Tongue, the Mystery Telling (LSB 630)
Behold a Host, Arrayed in White (LSB 676)
For All the Saints (LSB 677)
Entrust Your Days and Burdens (LSB 754)
Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me (LSB 756)
Kyrie! God, Father (LSB 942)

Saturday, March 30, 2019

It's a wonderful life. . .

I have written before on these pages of my mother-in-law and my father-in-law.  Theirs was a second marriage but a first love -- a love to which I was privileged to be included -- from their wedding until Al's death in 2014, and now Mary's today.  When we picked Mary up and drove her from Indiana to Tennessee for my daughter's wedding, she went with us on a small shopping trip.  While surveying some pillows, she found one that said It's a wonderful life.  She clutched the pillow to her and said with a smile, "And it is!!"  If you knew Mary, you know how typical that comment and sentiment is.  It is a wonderful life.  Well, it depends.

Mary grew up in tough times with a family that had plenty of love but not much else.  It was hard times and it did not get better.  After she married her first husband and they had four children, he died suddenly at 41.  Her life was transformed by this loss.  She worked in a school cafeteria to make ends meet.  But she was set up by friends on a date with my father-in-law, who himself had lost his wife to cancer and who was left to raise their five children alone.  Their marriage was a godsend for them but grieving children and testy teens tested their love.  They had many happy years together before my father-in-law began suffering from Alzheimer's.  She did not complain and did a wonderful job of caring for him and keeping his memory alive as long as possible.  That was four and half years ago.  She missed him terribly every day until the day she died.  But it's a wonderful life. 

Do you get my point?  It was not a wonderful life and she lived no charmed existence.  But she was a woman of faith and a woman whose good heart refused to dwell on things gone wrong or to be embittered by the pain and loss she knew.  It was a wonderful life not because she had it easy or lived a fairy tale happily-ever-after existence but only because that was how she decided to see life.  Her strong faith certainly shaped this hopeful life but it was also a choice, a decision that she had made -- not to dwell on pain or loss but on happy memories and a hopeful future.  The outcome of that hopeful future was the promise of the resurrection of the dead through our Lord Jesus Christ and the reunion with those whom she loved who departed this life in faith.  She lived 92 years but that was not enough.  She expected and lived in anticipation of the eternity prepared for her by our Lord Jesus Christ and was not going to settle for anything less. 

So it was a wonderful life -- if not in fact and history, it was in faith and hope.  She lived to say good bye to those whom she loved.  In fact, for several of her last days she seemed to have endless energy to talk to family sitting around her and to friends and family who came to say good bye.  When the energy wore down, we gathered around her to pray and sing some hymns and tell stories.  When she became quiet, still her family gathered at her bedside so that she would not be alone.  When her death came, it was later than we thought but still too soon for us.  None of us have quite learned to emulate her hopeful heart and cheerful demeanor and so we depended upon her more than she ever knew.  And now, we pray the Lord to teach our hearts her joy, her patience, and her cheerfulness even as we commend her to the arms of her Savior and wait for our own blessed reunion in the Lord’s own time.

Why creeds. . .

For those who find creeds superfluous or even scandalous, it may be time to rethink the value and usage of the creed, especially confessed in worship.  A fairly recent survey has found that 78% of evangelicals believe that “Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God the Father.” In case you are wondering why that is a problem, that was the Arian position condemned by the Council of Nicea as being unfaithful to Scripture.  Lest you think that these evangelicals may have just been confused, it is precisely this issue that is addressed by and remedied by the regular and faithful use of the creeds, including the Athanasian Creed. But this is not the only problematic area, other studies have shown that the understanding of many with regard to the Trinity is likewise unfaithful to the Scriptures and probably modalistic at best.  Again, the value of the creed keeps popping up!

Christians who do not use creeds or confessions often do not get either the premise for them or the value of them.  Creeds place before the faithful the catholic and apostolic faith in summary form precisely so that they confess with their own lips the mysteries of the faith in the Incarnation and the Trinity.  Living in a community of churches who are non-creedal and living in an area where so-called Christian congregations routinely invite people by brushing off the particulars of what Scripture teaches and the creeds confess, I am daily confronted with the value of them and the salutary benefit of having and using them regularly.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Grace at 60. . .

On Sunday, March 29, 1959, about a hundred or so good souls came together to sign a charter and formally establish Grace Lutheran Church of Clarksville, Tennessee.  Under the leadership of Pastor Harold Tessmann, they went from a dream to an actual congregation in less than two years.  Army Chaplains had seen the potential.  Seminarians had canvassed the area (coming all the way from St. Louis).  The map showed no Lutheran presence between Paducah, KY, and Nashville, TN.  So a decision was made and a call extended.

Pastor Tessmann had served large congregations in Wheaton, IL, and Michigan but left the building and the establishment to begin something new.  His wife and children ended up moving into and then out of rental housing to find themselves in a partially finished parsonage.  I am not sure my family would have been so agreeable.  But it was exciting to be part of something brand spanking new.  And it was a boom year for the LCMS.  My first parish was between Albany and NYC and it was started in the same period of rather explosive growth for our church body.  We all long for those heady days when it was cheap and easy to plant a new congregation.  Those days have come and gone, to be sure. 

Now the parish Pastor Tessmann worked so hard to begin has matured and is 60 years old.  Some of those congregations started the same year have closed up shop.  Some have witnessed a neighborhood change and the pews empty and they are struggling now simply to survive.  Many of them are doing okay but they are sure their glory years have come and gone.  Some of them, like Grace, have flourished more in the second half of their lifespan than they did in the first 30 years.  We have become a strong congregation with a dynamic life flowing out of and back into the Word and Table of the Lord and we manifest a strong Lutheran identity and presence into the community.  We have prospered as the community has grown around us and our ministry extends beyond even the local neighborhoods to reach to Africa.  We have a large parish staff, a large and highly sought after preschool, and a great musical tradition.  But we will also face some serious challenges and changes.

Our Cantor of 22 years will retire this June after building a profound musical program.  I am approaching the days when I will begin considering that magic word retirement.  Will things be different?  You bet they will.  But though we change as people, the neighborhoods transform around us, the city grows, the world is different -- the Gospel remains the same.  Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.  I believe the future will be good for Grace Lutheran Church.  We have bucked the population trends and have an abundance of young families and small children.  We have people who are intentionally Lutheran and who want worship to be authentically Lutheran, rich, and excellent to match the amazing gifts of Word and Sacrament that form the beating heart of our life together.

There is no guarantee that earthly structures will endure but we know the faith will.  God will preserve the Church even though individual congregations begin and end.  This is not a consolation prize to comfort us in the face of defeat but the confidence in which we embrace the future, while carrying with us the best of the past, a living and lively tradition in which the past has voice and vote as well as the present.  In the end, that is good enough for me. 

Happy Birthday, Grace Lutheran Church! 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Politics not as usual. . .

Some in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod deride politics in the life of the church and are offended by the thought that something less than a purely pious motive or work might enter into the discussions of leadership.  I am not so naive.  It has been politics as usual for a long time in our church body -- and those who think that in the papal conclave only praying for God's will goes on should think twice before giggling at the LCMS.  Yet even politics as usual is not usual this year.  In the past there seems to have been more of an attempt to stick to issues whereas today the loyal opposition seems intent more on character assassination than illumination of the challenges and choices before our church body.  That is disturbing on several levels.  I will not list the egregious examples lest I contribute to the pervasive efforts to unelect by scandal and not so pious offense.

What I will do is this.  I suggest that the wisdom of our church body in having a more open election, passing the vote to pastors of congregations and the lay person chosen by the congregation has proven less wise than first thought.  Instead of a limited number of convention delegates receiving the deluge of mail and email designed to influence the vote, the attempt is made to influence everybody indiscriminately.  Instead of an ecclesiastical ballot for Synod President and Vice-President, the process has become a process of tarring and feathering the folks with whom you disagree.  In the old days, convention delegates would vote on behalf of their electoral circuits, pastor and lay, and make up the mind of the church.  It was not apolitical to be sure but the time to be influenced was short and all candidates, including the incumbent, has less time to present themselves to the delegates who would cast their lot for them.  Instead of a more open process, this has given the incumbent more resources to get his name before people at a time when people have trouble identifying any other national leaders.  So this has left the loyal opposition with the choice between educating a reticent population about the issues or painting the incumbent as dishonorable.  It seems the later choice has won out.

I understand that things can be perceived differently but nobody can dispute the facts -- except, it seems, those who are determined to ignore them. It is a sad day for our church body when entire web sites are set up as campaign headquarters for a candidate and others are set up to insist that the incumbent is not simply wrongheaded on the issues but completely without honor or integrity.  I know that this is the politics of the world but this is not politics as usual in our Synod and we ought to be ashamed that it has come to this, that we allow our attention to be consumed by salacious gossip, and presume the worst of intentions, motivation, and actions on the part of those we elected and, I hope, pray for each week.  If this is the best we can do for an election, then perhaps we ought to simply write names on paper ballots and have a child reach into the bowl and pull out a name.  At least then it would prevent the electioneering currently going on.

This is not simply goofiness but sin.  Sin that a church body which promotes Luther's Small Catechism ought to be against.  Remember that Luther does not simply forbid lying but insists that we are to put the best construction on things.  If that does not apply to the man who leads our church body and to those would replace him, we have bigger troubles than election procedures.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Good People. . .

Sermon for Lent 3C, preached on Sunday, March 24, 2019, by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich.

[Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:2-3). 
“Why do bad things happen to good people?”  We ask this question every time there’s a disaster.  We ask it when a loved one suffers a terrible accident.  We ask it when young children die after suffering for years from cancer.  This question gets thrown around by atheists and others calling into question God’s goodness; calling into question His very existence.  If God were truly good, if He really loved us, if He was all powerful as the Bible says, then why does He let bad things happen?  It’s not fair that good people should suffer.  And you’re right; it’s not fair.  But let me ask you another anyone truly good?

    We like to think people are good.  We like to think that deep down inside we’re all good and want to do the right thing.  All the time we’re told to have faith in humanity; that if people are just given a chance to do what’s right, they’ll do it.  The evil that people do isn’t because they want to do it, but they had to do it.  They were forced somehow.  It’s a result of their poor living situation, or their terrible childhood, or all the violence they’ve seen on TV and in movies and in video games, or because they were picked on by others, or...the list could go on and on.  We want to believe that people are good and that evil is from outside of us so that we aren’t held accountable for it.  We want to believe people are good so that we don’t have to face the truth that we’re not, the truth that we’re sinners.

    In the Gospel reading today, Jesus was updated on the current events.  Several Galileans had their blood mixed with the blood of their sacrifices.  This was a terrible thing.  These faithful Jews were killed Pilate as they presented their sacrifices.  And so, the question could be asked, “Why did this bad thing happen to these good people?”
    The people who reported this news probably expected Jesus to rebuke Pilate and the Romans.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  Instead He asked them two questions: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:2–5). 
Jesus’ questions confronted the popular belief of the day that saw a cause-and-effect relationship between sin and suffering.  If you sinned, God punished you.  This is the same popular belief we have today.  It’s what’s behind the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  We expect there to be a cause-and-effect relationship.  This makes sense.  That’s what’s fair.  And yet, that’s not what Jesus says. 

Jesus didn’t focus on Pilate’s sin.  He didn’t focus on the Galileans’ sin or the sin of the eighteen.  Instead, He focused on the sin of those who were still alive...He focuses on our sin. 
The people who suffered in Jesus’ examples weren't suffering because they were worse sinners than anyone else.  God wasn’t punishing them for specific sins.  But these people were still sinners, just as you and I are sinners. 

The truth is, no one is good; not one of us.  And because of this, we should all be like the Galileans and the eighteen.  We deserve death for our sin.  That’s what we confess every Sunday.  We come before God on our knees and say we “justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment.”  When we see death in our world, we need to recognize that it’s the just punishment that we deserve and we must repent of our sin. 

    We ask “Why do bad things happen to good people,” but what we should be asking is “Why do good things ever happen to anyone?”  No one is good, except for God.  God is good.  God is gracious.  God is merciful, and because of His love for you, because of Christ your Savior, He relents from the punishment that you and I deserve. 

Jesus steps in to save you from death.  That’s what His parable for today is about.  God is the man with a fig tree, and we are that fig tree.  God expects us to bear fruit, to live according to His Word and commands, to live a life of faith; and yet, like the tree in the parable, we don’t.  We sin.  We turn from God.  We question Him and His goodness.  So what do you do with a fruit tree that bears no fruit?  You cut it down.  But thanks be to God that our Vinedresser, that Christ our Lord, has stepped in for us.
Jesus is our mediator.  He stands before God, asking for mercy upon us, not because we deserve, but because He received the punishment that we justly deserve.  The punishment of sin was placed on Christ as He was nailed to the cross.  Jesus received God’s full wrath so that you wouldn’t.  So with faith in Him and in His saving sacrifice, repent of your sin.  Live the life God has given you.  Live the life God has called you to.  Live the life of faith, doing good, showing forth Christ’s love.   
It’s interesting that Jesus’ parable doesn’t have an ending.  It ends with the vinedresser saying, “if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Lk 13:9).  We don’t know what happens to the tree: did it bear fruit?  Did it continue to be fruitless and get cut down?  The story’s ending isn’t written; and thus, it’s a call to us.  Are you going to bear fruit?  Are you going to see death in the world and see it as the just punishment that you deserve?  Are you going to repent of your sin and live in the life Christ as won for you?  Are you going to live according to God’s Word and commands?  Or, are you going to continue to be fruitless, continue to live in your sin, refusing to recognize and repent of it?

We ask “Why do bad things happen to good people,” but we should ask “Why do good things happen at all?”  They happen because of Christ, because of God’s goodness and mercy.  We don’t deserve anything but death, but Christ stepped in, taking our punishment.  So with faith, repent.  With faith, bear fruit.  With faith, turn to God and receive His goodness, His forgiveness, His life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen.

Laicization is not a punishment. . .

The ministry is not a right.  It is a privilege extended by the Church to those whom she believes are called -- unworthy candidates though they surely are.  We in the clergy sometimes forget that.  We act as if ordination were an entitlement instead of a duty, a job instead of a vocation.  On the other hands, being laity in the Church is not a lower class and certainly not a sin.  Yet that is one of the things that is presumed in a drama unfolding from on high in the Vatican toward a former cardinal hidden away in a friary in Kansas.

As you all know by now, Theodore no longer Cardinal McCarrick is now not only a former cardinal but a former archbishop, former bishop, and former priest.  The Pope has decided to laicize him.  It is part of the punishment that is being applied for his sins preying upon youth and adults while he was a priest, bishop, archbishop, and cardinal.  While stripping him of his red hat and purple clerics is certainly a punishment and stripping him of his priestly identity and faculties is proper and appropriate, we should not describe his defrocking as his punishment.  It is not a sin to be a laymen.  To strip him of his priestly identity and faculties is long overdue and to banish him to silence and prayer for the sake of his soul is appropriate, making him a layman again is not in itself a punishment unless we want to describe those who are not priests as living in a sinful estate.  Nobody should be celebrating that McCarrick was severely punished simply because his priestly order was removed.  O boy, we fixed him.  We made him a layman.  Oh, how terrible.  I am offended by such sentiment and so should the faithful in the pews whose dignity and baptismal calling are trivialized and scandalized by the idea that a prince of the Roman Catholic Church has been well punished by making him sit on the other side of the altar rail once again.

What will let the people in the pews and the world know that Rome has gotten it will not be the defrocking of McCarrick but holding all those accountable who knew and did nothing -- with respect to McCarrick and all those priests who abused.  A more powerful and profound symbol is not the laicization of an 89 year old former cardinal but a mass resignation and replacement of bishops all over the world whose silence is as much their failure as their complicity in this public scandal.   What will let the people in the pews and the world know that Rome got it will be giving up the incessant rant of clericalism as the cause and the solemn admission that homosexual priests were the nearly exclusive predators in a scandal that seems never to end.  This was not about power or even about privilege but about uncontrolled and disordered desire.  No matter how tormented the soul of those who have to rein in the passion of their hearts for the sake of vocation, it is not nearly as great as the torment of the faithful who must look at their priest with fear, worried about what he might do to their children.  The world is waiting for Rome to awaken to the real scandal and to do something credible and appropriate about it. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A Hindu (?) at the Head of a Pan-Lutheran Agency. . .

LIRS (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service) is excited to announce the appointment of Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, former Policy Director to First Lady Michelle Obama, as President and Chief Executive Officer, effective February 13, 2019. Since its founding in 1939, LIRS has worked to uphold the uniquely American ideal that welcoming immigrants from across the globe with open arms is essential to our nation’s progress and prosperity. Now more than ever, bold action is needed to ensure America remains the shining city on the Hill and a bastion of hope for those yearning for a better life. Krish’s embodiment of these timeless American values inspired LIRS to appoint a next generation leader—the second refugee and first non-Lutheran in its 80-year history—to lead its efforts to protect the rights and create opportunities for vulnerable refugees and migrants.

“In an era of family separation and animus towards immigrants seeking a better life, Krish Vignarajah is the perfect person to lead LIRS–one of our nation’s foremost immigration organizations. As an immigrant who fled a civil war and went on to serve in the State Department, Obama White House, and across Maryland, Krish uniquely understands the challenges and opportunities facing refugees and asylum-seekers. She will be a tireless champion for all who seek a better life,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (Md).

“Krish is exactly the kind of once-in-a-generation leader LIRS needs right now,” said LIRS Board Chair Bishop Michael Rinehart. “The selection of Krish is an embodiment of the Lutheran commitment to be a church for the sake of the world. Today, we have the opportunity to extend and embrace the gift and energy of a leader who came to this country as one of the most vulnerable. ”

Krish has been Policy Director for Michelle Obama, Senior Advisor at the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry, and a lawyer and university professor.

Founded in 1939, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is one of the largest immigration and refugee resettlement agencies in the United States, and only one of two agencies that helped reunite children with parents after family separations. LIRS is nationally recognized for its leadership working with and advocating for refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, immigrants in detention, families fractured by migration and other vulnerable populations. Through 80 years of service and advocacy, LIRS has helped over 500,000 migrants and refugees rebuild their lives in America.

My Comments:

I have no doubt that Krish is well qualified and polically connected. I have no doubt that many will hail her appointment as ground-breaking.  I have no doubt that her personal experience will weigh heavily on her work.  What troubles me is that when Lutheran agencies are run by non-Lutherans, the bottom line question is what makes this agency Lutheran at all?  The source of funds is not a credible answer nor is it enough to describe the legacy of its Lutheran founders or the board members who currently hold Lutheran membership.  Krish is not only not Lutheran but not Christian.  If Lutheranism is key to the identity and mission of LIRS, how will she administer this pan-Lutheran agency and honor that identity and direct that mission?  The LIRS board says Krish will help the agency embody the church for the sake of the world.  How is it possible for a Hindu to assist a Lutheran agency do that?

Again, do not interpret my comments as anyway suggesting that the problem lies with Krish.  It lies with Lutherans who talk the talk about the church, about Christ, about the Gospel, and then leave the leadership of an agency whose job it is to do those things in the hands of a non-Christian.  So either there is not much Lutheran anymore in Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Services OR the agency has become merely an arm of the government, using government and other grant funds to do government work.  I am not sure which is true or if both are true but it does leave a question where an explanation point should be. . .


Monday, March 25, 2019

Don't be too anything. . .

The internet is abuzz with stories of priests who get in trouble for being traditional Roman Catholics, for introducing either the Latin Mass or for ordering the Novus Ordo with traditional ceremonies (everything from chant to incense).   In some cases, some bishops (Cupich) are intimidating such priests with threats that challenge their sanity and may require them to enter counseling.  Recently, there was a story in the news about a Michigan priest who was removed from his parish because he began to introduce elements of traditional worship.  In the case of this priest, Fr Dwyer, he was accused of introducing incense, vesting the altar servers in cassocks and surplices, and putting some candles on the altar. He also introduced a some elements of Latin and Gregorian chant. Most admit that he did so with care, gradually and with catechesis–explaining what he was doing and why-- but it was not enough to prevent his removal.  Now I have no personal knowledge of any of these situations but I suspect the story is true.

While the above is happening in Roman Catholic settings, there is similar truth among Lutherans, even within the LCMS.  It is not uncommon for pastors to get into trouble for doing little more than holding to the official position of the LCMS by patiently and with deliberate catechesis reintroducing the liturgy, the official hymnal of our church, historic Lutheran worship practices, the teaching and practice of close(d) communion, the teaching and practice of women's roles consistent with LCMS teaching, and the like.  In some places, the bishop (district president is the LCMS nomenclature) is quick to discourage the pastor from the pursuit of more faithful Lutheran doctrine and practice -- especially if the overseer fears that it will create conflict.  On the other hand, the same bishops seem to have no problem in suggesting candidates to calling congregations who will lead them away from the use of the hymnal, the liturgy, or faithful Lutheran worship practice and will support these changes because they believe such is the shape of our future.

So what am I saying?  Sometimes the most dangerous thing you can be as a pastor (or priest) is to be a faithful example of what your church believes, teaches, and practices.  We live in a world in which it is considered good to press even further the progressive edge of your church body but not so good to hold to what your church body has believed, taught, and confessed.  This is true whether you are a Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Roman Catholic.  To many folks inside and outside of the church, the best pastor or church leader is the one who is out ahead of the church on such things as gender, sexuality, subjective truth, Biblical integrity, and doctrinal fidelity.  And, by extension, the worst thing you can be is to be considered inflexible or rigid in maintaining the faith once delivered to the saints.

If the church is to survive, she will not survive by surrendering her identity for the sake of the moment and if a pastor or priest is to succeed it will not be by surrendering his integrity in the pursuit of being liked or relevant.  These are trying times and even if the bishops do not get it, the future lies with those who are faithful.  The ultimate faithfulness, of course, is not to an institution but to the voice of God's Word and to the catholic and apostolic faith that this Word informs and guards.  But that faithfulness will come with a cost.  You can complain about it and your complaint may be true enough but our Lord never once suggested that faithfulness was the easy path or the popular one.  In fact, He went to great pains to make sure we knew before signing on that faithfulness would be constantly tested, tried, persecuted, and threatened.  If you are not prepared for this, then you are not ready to be commended to the church as a worthy servant and office bearer. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

God is not improved. . . but we are. . .

Reading something the other day I came across a reference to St. Thomas Aquinas who said that God is not improved by our worship but we are.  It is true wisdom.  God is not enlarged by our worship of Him nor is He somehow improved by it.  We cannot add to Him nor can we subtract from Him.  But we are enlarged by His gracious gifts and improved by His work in us and we are added to by His mercy and diminished by the lack of it.

In other words, the benefit of worship is not in the worship but in the doing of what the Lord asks us to do (hear, eat, drink, pray...) because He is at work in them even more than we are.  Let me put it another way.  Worship does not provide other things -- it is not a means to get something greater or more profound.  Worship provides its own reward in the God who comes to us where He has promised, delivers to us the grace our Lord has earned, and shows to us the mercy that forgives our sins, redeems our life from the grave, and saves us to be His own now and forevermore.

We are a pragmatic people.  Perhaps that, too, is the fruit of sin's work in our hearts.  We think in practical terms.  If we go to church, we think we ought to get something for it.  If we read God's Word, we expect to get something for it.  If we receive His sacrament, we feel like there ought to be some tangible benefit or blessing.  If we pray, we figure the least God can do is to give us what we prayed for.  But this is not only simplistic, it is wrong.  It misses the whole thing in favor of some hidden outcome or delight that is beyond the gathering around Word and Table in prayer and praise.  The blessing is not something added to the gift.  The gift IS the blessing.

We have become, in essence, too practical.  We have reduced worship to a liturgical utilitarianism that forgets and ultimately denies that God is in what is happening and that His gift there IS the blessing.  It is the point of view of those who believe that God's Word is but words and that the blessing is in us in hearing them and not in the Word.  There is no efficacy in this Word, no living voice, and no personal address.  Its value to us lies in the instruction that leads us closer to what we want and not necessarily to what God wills.  It is the point of view of those who believe that the water does nothing but signs that which is not present -- the gift is beyond the splash and the Word itself.  Or the bread and wine are nothing but bread and wine that symbolize something which is not really present in that bread and wine -- a spiritual communion which is signed in the eating and drinking but essentially different from it.  Whatever that point of view is, it is surely not Lutheran and not worthy of the catholic claims of our Augustana.  Nor does it hold any commonality with the vibrant confession of the ancient church.  God is not out there somewhere to be imagined in our minds and hearts as we meditate on His Word or see the symbolism of His sacraments but in His Word and in His Sacraments.  He is there doing what He has promised to do and giving what is signed and symbolized.  If we point beyond them (except in the sense of their perfect fulfillment in the eschaton) we lose what is present and real now.

Worship is not a program of the church with goals and purposes and aims beyond what happens in the hearing of the Word read and preached, the receiving of the blessed Sacrament, and the response of prayer and praise that accompanies the baptized receiving the means of grace.  Worship is the end and not simply a means to an end because God is where He has promised to be and doing what He has pledged to do.

I well recall once having a dinner meeting in which nothing was accomplished.  At the end of it I said in frustration that it was a waste of time since we had nothing to show for it all.  At that point a small voice reminded me that we had eaten a good meal and we had done it together, that this meal began with prayer and ended with it, and that this was not nothing.  Worship is not nothing.  It is where we meet the Lord as He has chosen and bidden us.  It is wherein He comes to us and, though He is not improved or enhanced by it all, we are -- richer than eye can see or mind imagine.  Once we begin to remember this, we will stop trying to measure the success of Sunday morning through statistics and begin to appreciate that God has come to us this day, replete with all His gifts and blessings, but none more sublime than His presence among sinners.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The politics of catechesis. . .

In the wake of Cardinal Dolan's seeming passivity while Governor Cuomo signed a pro-abortion bill allowing abortion literally up to birth in New York state, much has been made of the politics of it all.  Indeed, there are politics at work here.  Cardinal Dolan complained publicly about the fact that the Catholic Governor was happy to have the assistance of the Roman Catholic Church for issues upon which their positions agreed but appeared to be happy to distance the agencies of that church body from other issues, most notably the efforts to protect and even expand abortion.  There is a stirring of discontent within Rome on what to do with politicians like Cuomo who, unlike even his father, expressed little personal conflict in promoting positions at odds with the position of the church in which he claims to be a member.  While some have grown impatient for some sort of warning shot against such politicians, others are hesitant to use any means of church discipline for political stands.

Not everything is political.  Sometimes not even political things are simply political.  Sometimes catechesis is political -- not by intent but by consequence.  Those who would warn politicians when their public positions are in conflict with the positions of their churches are not practicing politics as much as they are being catechetical.  They are teaching the faith to the faithful and, in particular, to those who seem not to know the difference.  There is nothing political when pastoral care requires warning a member that they are living at odds with the witness of Scripture.  This happens all the time when members cohabit or commit adultery or violate the moral code and express commands of God in a public way and without penitence.  When those members are in political positions, the pastoral care may be public but it is still pastoral care.

We have too long lived in the expectation that it is enough to speak privately to such public individuals and to be patient in awaiting the fruits of such pastoral conversation in repentance and reconciliation.  In the end, when the church appears silent before such public sins the presumption is not that private counsel has taken place but that the church has accepted such wrongs.  When we no longer speak publicly about cohabitation, the presumption is that it is no longer considered wrong.  When we no longer challenge abortion and those who work to protect and promote it, the presumption is that it is no longer considered wrong to do so.  When we no longer challenge a morality in which pleasure is the primary consideration, the presumption is that pleasure is what determines right from wrong.  When we no longer advocate or provide for the orphan, the widowed, the aged, the refugee, and those in need, the presumption is that the church has ceded such to the state and no longer has an interest in it.  While such witnesses may be political, they are primarily catechetical.  Sometimes catechesis has a political edge to it.  An example of this is what took place a few months ago in the march for life.  It is not primarily political but catechetical and yet even this catechesis is not without its political impact.

Unless we speak pastorally but bluntly in witness to what we believe, teach, and confess, we have surrendered our voice to others who will gladly presume that either the church is without a stand or without the courage to admit this stance before the world.  No one is suggesting that we must be rude or arrogant or mean but to deny our voice to the public square because there are political consequences to our catechetical purpose is a most foolish path and dead end.  Whether Rome or Wittenberg, the faith must be first taught before it can be defended and in defending the faith we must catechize and teach it.  It is high time for us all to remember this truth and heed it.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Surprise! Church related. . .

Reading over at First Things Blog I noticed this statement that began a story on the influence Methodist colleges and universities are putting upon the Methodist Church to adopt the GLBTQ agenda:
Duke University, which prides itself on being an elite and cosmopolitan institution of higher learning, has suddenly reminded the world—and probably many of its own astonished students—that it has a religious affiliation with the United Methodist Church.
Now there you have it.  Has suddenly reminded the world and probably many of its own astonished students.  Sadly, it IS a surprise to many attending historically church related colleges and universities that they were and are still church related.  That is because many, if not most, of these schools have long ago abandoned any real identity consistent with their church roots and embraced a secular, diverse, and scientific view of their educational mission.  Duke, and many other schools, find the positions of their sponsoring churches to be embarrassing at best and scandalous at worst.  I am actually surprised that anyone at Duke would think it a good idea to remind folks that the school has any kind of connection to Methodism whatsoever.

As I have written here before, historically church related colleges and universities find it increasingly difficult for them to toe the politically correct line while at the same time doing much more than fund raise from their church related constituencies..  Honestly, that is exactly the challenge facing Lutheran colleges and universities -- including those in the LCMS.  The government reminds the schools that those who receive government funds or whose students receive government sponsored student loans do not have the option of ignoring the mandates that accompany those funds.  The church, on the other hand, reminds those schools that they have more than a history to honor when it comes to their identity as church related schools.  Any honest president of a church related college or university will admit that they struggle every day to live within this tension.  But if they have to err, it will most certainly be on the side of the church -- distancing themselves from the church in order to preserve the money stream that pays the bills.

I have every confidence that in the LCMS our administrators are trying their best to maintain a Lutheran identity but it does not take much to observe those schools outside our realm that are Lutheran only in terms of heritage.  They no longer attempt to foster a Lutheran identity -- unless their Lutheran connection is to a progressive and liberal Lutheran entity that has adopted values and goals virtually indistinguishable from the leading edge of cultural and philosophical change.

While it is easy to speak from outside the schools in question, what the article mentioned about Duke is the harder truth.  Current and recent past students are often quite surprised that the schools they attended had a church connection.  From the classroom and what happens therein to the array of student groups sponsored on campus to the nature of the conversations and behavior outside the classroom, a church relationship is hardly obvious to those who did or are attending many (if not most) of these institutions.

If there is any church relationship which remains sacred to historic church colleges and universities, it is the mailing list.  Money talks.  There is no income stream more sacred than the alumni who have deep pockets and great memories and who think that the school today is like the one they attended 50 or 60 or 70 years ago.  It is this connection that church related schools hope to maintain long after they have ditched any real Christian (or Lutheran) identity on campus.  And who would blame them?  They have one goal -- to see their school succeed in a crowded and expensive marketplace.  So is it possible for the school's administration and boards of regents to effectively balance this need with their church identity?  I am sure that even in the best of circumstances it remains a difficult balancing act.  So what is the choice?  I wish I knew a neat and tidy option -- good for the school and for the church.  But what I do know is that in the costly choices of private school (including church school) and public university, it is increasingly more difficult to justify either attending such a school or a church supporting one.  I suspect that in the nearer future more than distant future this dilemma will have to be faced.  When that happens, it will most certainly not be neat and tidy.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Only those who live by faith know what is really happening. . .

“We are at the end of Christendom.” Archbishop Fulton Sheen said in 1974.  Of course, he was not speaking about the end of Christianity or the demise of the Church but the social force of Christianity in culture and society.  “Christendom is economic, political, social life as inspired by Christian principles. That is ending — we’ve seen it die. Look at the symptoms: the breakup of the family, divorce, abortion, immorality, general dishonesty.”

Growing up in the 1950s, what some have deemed golden years of American life and Christian culture, I can well see what he was speaking about.  Though it did not appear at that time that it would be possible to awaken to a culture and society in which orthodox Christianity had become an enemy of our common life and the public square, the seeds of this were already being sown long before the sour fruit is being picked now, some forty or fifty sixty years later.

Sheen continued: “Why is it that so few realize the seriousness of our present crisis?  Partly because men do not want to believe their own times are wicked, partly because it involves too much self-accusation, and principally because they have no standards outside of themselves by which to measure their times… Only those who live by faith really know what is happening in the world. The great masses without faith are unconscious of the destructive processes going on.”

There is great wisdom.  We do not want to believe our times our wicked because that wickedness points to us, to the sinful heart which is the fruit of Eden's rebellion, and to the loss of our place within God's creative order.  We do not want to look into the mirror of the law and see what evil we have done wrong, the good left undone, and our helpless state to repair this condition.  We find it easy to cast off the constraints of God's wisdom as if they were shackling our desire and drive but then we find ourselves unable to fill the gap with common wisdom and common morality.  We do not see the evil of it until the evil of it has done its worst and we are left wounded and blind.

But the key statement here is:  Only those who live by faith really know what is happening in the world.  Now there is a statement to consider and roll over in your mind.  The world sees the faithful as the blind but Sheen is saying we are the only ones who see.  That is the witness not simply of Sheen but of Jesus before the Pharisees and a world left unprepared for the coming of the Messiah and unable to recognize Jesus as that long promised Christ.

It is not simply the faithful who suffer for this but the world which is consigned to its darkness as the public square is increasingly closed off to the voice of God's people speaking His Word.  In the end, this is the terrible destruction we did not realize or learn to fear until it was too late.  I grew up when it was considered wise precaution to hide under your desk in case of nuclear attack and in my middle aged years I learned it was considered wise precaution to secure aircraft and public spaces against the terrorist.  But the most prudent thing of all is to identify and label the destruction which happens in our midst not from predictable enemy or means but from the loss of family, the confusion of gender, the glorification of pleasure, leisure, and sexual desire, the refusal to protect life from its earliest stages in the womb until its natural end, and the redefinition of truth as subjective and temporary.  In these we see the evidence of Sheen's prediction and the truth of his diagnosis.  But it remains to be seen whether or not we see the courage or the path to escape from the dead end into which our common life without God has led us.

According to Sheen, we are “definitely at the end of a non-religious era of civilization, which regarded religion as an addendum to life, a pious extra, a morale-builder for the individual but of no social relevance, an ambulance that took care of the wrecks of the social order until science reached a point where there would be no more wrecks;  which called on God only as a defender of national ideals, or as a silent partner… but who had nothing to say about how the business should be run” or life is to be lived.  Again, Archbishop Sheen:  “God will not allow unrighteousness to become eternal.  Revolution, disintegration, chaos, must be reminders that our thinking has been wrong, our dreams have been unholy.  Moral truth is vindicated by the ruin that follows when it has been repudiated.  The chaos of our times is the strongest negative argument that could ever be advanced for Christianity… The disintegration following an abandonment of God thus becomes a triumph of meaning, a reaffirmation of purpose…Adversity is the expression of God’s condemnation of evil, the registering of Divine Judgement... Catastrophe reveals that evil is self-defeating; we cannot turn from God without hurting ourselves.”

But this is not simply a sobering judgment of the days, it is a call to action.  Sheen insists that Christians “must realize that a moment of crisis is not a time of despair, but of opportunity.  The more we can anticipate the doom, the more we can avoid it. Once we recognize we are under Divine Wrath, we become eligible for Divine Mercy.  It was because of famine the prodigal said: ‘I will arise, and will go to my father.’ The very disciplines of God create hope.  The thief on the right came to God by a crucifixion. The Christian finds a basis for optimism in the most thorough-going pessimism, for his Easter is within three days of Good Friday.”

We will not legislate or vote ourselves out of this crisis.  According to Sheen “The only way out of this crisis is spiritual, because the trouble is not in the way we keep our books, but in the way we keep our souls. The time is nearer than you think.”

Instead of those who make peace or accommodation with the times, we need such clear voices in our day.  We need those who will not only speak but act courageously and heroically on the basis of their faith, for the sake of those who they know and love and for those who are strangers to them.  In the end the world will not be repaired but the faithful will live, the Church will not be killed but will be brought to her wonderful completion, presented holy and spotless by Christ the bridegroom, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb will be eaten and drunk in the presence of the Father forevermore.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Children as toys. . .

You can tell a great deal about how things are valued by how they are treated.  I have a toddler granddaughter and we have some collections in our home.  In the beginning gates kept her captive to a few rooms but she has now learned that some things are off limits.  Sure, she is curious and occasionally approaches an item we have deemed out of bounds but most of the time she has watched and learned from us that these things are not toys.  Children are smart but even more than this they learn by watching us (for good or for ill).  What a shame that we do not treat them as valuable.

Education has become more and more the domain of the experimental.  The old new math was a confusing travesty after years had taught youth to count and figure mostly by instinct.  In the end, we stole from them the ability to count and figure and left them without even an understanding of what they were doing right or wrong.  Now there is an effort to re-invent the way we teach reading.  I just hope we will not end up dooming a whole generation to illiteracy because we like to play with them as if they were toys.

Now the classroom, already over burdened with tasks other than teaching, is now the domain of gender experimentation.  The move is in to confront those for whom gender ought to be a given with the myriad of choices born of adult desire and fad.  We have already filled the day so that we have robbed the children of recess and now we are in the business of taking the current rage of toxic masculinity into the classroom to shackle our boys with the foibles of modern whim and invention.  Who knows what will be next?

G.K. Chesterton once observed that “it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people.”  He was on to something.  Our children ought not be test subjects in the laboratory of our curiosity.  We should not be playing with them as if they were simply objects and we ought to respect them and value them at least as much as we value adulthood.  So instead of reading to them the stories of modernity that have not yet been judged over time as worthy, we ought to expose them to the classics that have been commended from generation to generation.  Instead of teaching them according to unproven theory, we ought to refrain from inventing methods which may not be an improvement and have no track record to commend them.

If we value our children, we owe it to them to first expose them to the time-tested methods, sources, ideas and facts -- the things in which we have the most confidence. But in the wonderland of today’s educational environment, we treat our children as text subjects.  Chesterton’s wisdom has been turned on its head. Novelty has become a worthy substitute for tradition, for that which has been judged worthy and noble over time, and for that which has evidence of success over many generations.

As true as this is for education, it is even more true for social theory and psychological invention.  Do not treat children as test subjects in our curious quest for things new and different.  We owe them more than this and we will surely scar the generations to come for our disregard of how children learn, grow, socialize, develop, and play.  The last thing our children need from us is to be treated as small versions of adults with our penchant for what is full of the spirit of the moment but empty of enduring truth and wisdom.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

How oft would I have gathered you. . .

Sermon for Lent 2C, preached on Sunday, March 17, 2018.

    If I were a prophet of Israel, I would have a tee shirt made that said “don’t shoot me, I’m only the messenger.”  When Jezebel destroyed the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah hid a hundred of them in caves.  Amos was tortured and killed.  Jonah ran from the Lord’s call.  Habbakuk was stoned.  Jeremiah was stoned.  Ezekiel died at the hands of those to whom he was sent to prophesy.  Ahijah was killed by a lion.  Zechariah was slain by Joash at the altar.  It was hard to get life insurance if you were a prophet of God sent to Israel.  No wonder prophets could not be recruited but had to be called by God.  It was not the prophets themselves whom the people hated but the message the Lord sent the prophets to proclaim.  Yes it was judgment but it was judgment that came with a call to repentance, to return to the Lord.

    Now Jesus Himself felt the sting of rejection.  Herod wanted to kill Him and the leaders of the Temple were plotting His demise.  The people who had once flocked to Him were drifting away.  His disciples found His teachings hard to understand and hard to believe.  Jesus went to far as to ask them if they were ready to take a hike as well.  Now Jesus puts it out where we see it clearly.  We complain that God has rejected us but the rejection is not His, it is ours.  God spoke the promise of redemption first to Adam and Eve in the Garden.  God sent forth patriarch and prophet to keep this hope alive until it would be made flesh in Christ.  God called the sinner back when he departed from the faith and God called all people to repentance and faith.           

    Though we find it convenient to blame a God who refuses to budge from His insistence upon holiness, it is our refusal to be covered by His mercy and redeemed by His blood that convicts us.  Compare Jesus’ words with the Lenten theme verse:  return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger but abounding in steadfast love.  The message of the prophets was not a gloom and doom but this tender call to return to the gracious God who delights in showing mercy to His people.  This is the message of Jesus.  God would but you would not.  God is merciful but you reject His  mercy.  The Lord kept hope alive but you killed it with your refusal to believe it.

    As we make our way through Lent, we come face to face with this truth.  God is not our enemy.  We are our own worst enemies.  The Lord has not rejected us but offered us the way by the truth of His Word into the everlasting life of His Son.  The story of God’s love is the story of a relentless love that called His people back when left Him and called His people to repentance when they rejected His ways and delivered His people in mercy when they deserved nothing but judgment.  The love of God is relentless.  He goes even to the cross and dies that we might be forgiven and life.

    Maybe some of you have learned the joy of the Baby Bum videos.  Now that we have a granddaughter I have encountered these nursery rhymes for kids.  One of them is Five Little Ducks.   Four little ducks went swimming one day, over the hill and far away and each time she called them back but one less duck came back until finally she was all alone.  What a sad nursery rhyme this is!  Why would we tell our kids stories of babies who abandoned their moms and of moms who did not do everything in their power to find their lost children?  In the end, of course, they do come back – at least in the nursery rhyme.  But in the reality of life they do not.

    The great sadness of this story is nothing compared to the great tragedy of the Word of the Lord that calls in every age and time, through patriarchs, prophets, and pastors, and the people who refuse His call.  The Lord is relentless in His pursuit of those who leave but there not always a happy ending.  There is the sadness of the Lord who sought out sinners and those who refused Him, who called the lost to repentance and the lost denied Him, who loved the unlovable when they loved Him not.  Jesus tells us this sad story so we will hear His voice, and hearing may believe His Word, and believing may have forgiveness and life in His name.  His is not the fickle heart that refuses but the heart filled with mercy and love that redeems, restores, and forgives.

    In Matthew’s gospel, these words of Jesus are placed near His crucifixion.  For there is no more unmistakable context for the steadfast love of the Lord than the cross. There is the mercy that a world mired in sin and its death needs.  There is the grace that beckons to the guilty and bids the wounded come.  There is the love that is relentless in pursuit of the lost.  There is hope for the hopeless.  The prophets of old were messengers of this Word.  The pastors who stand in this pulpit are the messengers of the same Word.  The Scriptures are this Word and baptism washes this Word and the Holy Communion feeds this Word, the steadfast love of the Lord for you endures forever.

    Love calls you here.  Do not run from it but run to it.  Return to this Lord.  Do not run from Him but to Him.  Let your questions and your doubts drive you into the Word and let your pride melt before this relentless love for God does not seek your destruction but your life, not to judge you but to save you, and not to wound you but to heal you.  For surely there will be days when you are tempted to think God your enemy and there will be times when it seems He has abandoned you.  There will be days when troubles will seem impossible and solutions will escape you.  There will be times when it seems you do not need God and God does not want you.  There will be excuses you use to justify your sins and your will plead that it is not your fault.  But God cares for none of this.  He wants only YOU.  He has loved you from before you were born.  He sent His Son to suffer in your place and die your death. There is no doubt about His love for you.

    You do not have a God problem, you have a sin problem and a death problem.  You have a fear problem and a pride problem.  You do not have a God problem.  You have an enemy who pumps up your ego and feeds you lies as truth.  You do not have a God problem.  The Lord is on YOUR side.  From the first promise given to Adam and Eve in the Garden to the deliverance of His people from their enemies to the voices of the prophets through the generations to the angel who spoke and Jesus became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary to His miracles and message, until on the cross it was made unmistakable, God is merciful and He seeks your salvation.

    Return to the Lord your God for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  How oft would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood. . .  This is the same love and the same Gospel and the same truth.  It points you to the cross where love is not a word but a selfless act of sacrifice.  It calls you to a life lived not in fear by yourself but in confidence that the Lord is on your side.  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom the Lord loves and longs for, His joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord as His beloved children, hide in the shelter of His saving wings, and treasure the love that would suffer all to redeem you, a lost and condemned sinner.

    In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Living Lutheran. . .

Having a few moments, I turned to the pile of journals and magazines on my coffee table and began to survey the offerings.  It did not take too long to pick up the February Issue of Living Lutheran, the official periodical of the ELCA.  It also did not take too long to find out what the ELCA is focused upon and how the Gospel and grace are defined among them.

In "Grace and God's Welcome" the reader was treated to poignant stories of gay and lesbian folks who thought God was not happy with their attractions until they encountered grace without bounds and then ended up pastors in the ELCA.  It was a focused call to see the GLBTQ agenda as one of the primary agendas of that church body and, despite nearly wide open doors, how this must be reaffirmed lest someone be denied the desires of the heart simply for such a trivial thing as God's Word.

In the next article, "We're On the Move," a celebration of the election of several bishops of African descent, decried racism and called the ELCA to depart from its eurocentricity.  This is interesting because the ELCA is like 95% white and to have 2 of 65 bishops of African descent is not just a start but way above the proportion of its membership.  It is a good thing when race and color fade and qualifications raise up leaders.  What is curious, however, is that one of the installations began with the singing of Ain't No Stoppin Us Now.  Spontaneous or not, this is hardly more than an R & B tune and certainly not a hymn of faith.  The song is less about faith than getting your foot in the door.
The energy in that space told us we weren’t alone—we were surrounded by the great cloud of  witnesses. We were wombed together in that crowded space, united in solidarity and celebration. God, as midwife, birthed in us something ancient yet altogether new. I was ancestor and infant. The spirit from that processional leads me to now ask where we go from here. Where is God calling the ELCA?  To achieve lasting transformation,
the ELCA must continue to wrest our congregations from the grip of racism and   Eurocentricity. The bishop elections of 2018 have set us on a path toward greater understanding, greater equity and greater freedom. It is my hope that we will continue to honor our Reformation heritage by acting as an agent of change in an unjust world. I am hopeful for the future of the ELCA.
While I can understand her excitement, I wonder if others are wondering for very different reasons Where is God calling the ELCA?  Nothing there about Christ's freedom in that most central of Lutheran proclamations -- justification by grace through faith in Christ or freedom from sin and its death or salvation freely offer for its cost paid in full in Christ Jesus.  Is the trajectory of the Reformation really acting as an agent of change in an unjust world?  I wonder if Luther might find this a surprise -- I know a great many Lutherans would.

At the end of the publication, the Presiding Bishop asks What is God up to?  After a sobering assessment of where the ELCA is demographically, she asks if this is a problem needing a solution or trust to follow God in whatever new thing he God is doing in the ELCA (remember that male pronouns referring to God are not popular in this crowd).
What is to be done? Our congregations are growing older and smaller. At least 40 percent of our congregations have an average weekly worship attendance of 50 or less. ELCA membership decreases by 70,000 people a year, or roughly the loss of a synod per year. Clergy retirements outnumber new candidates for ministry. Financial pressures and building maintenance create stress. There is a dearth of people in their 20s and 30s in our pews. How do we change this? How do we reverse the trends? I think we are asking the wrong questions. . . The questions we are asking have to do about us: “What can we do?” They express loss and grief and fear—loss and grief for what we were and fear about what we will become. Not only do these questions not lead to productive answers, they also don’t point to hope. It’s as if the church’s one foundation rests on us and our efforts. I think we need to ask: “What is God up to?”
I wonder if it might not surprise God to find out that the decline in the birth rate, the aging of the population, the seeming impossibility of the ELCA to actually reflect in numbers the diversity it proclaims in print, and the decline of the family are God's doing.  Perhaps Bishop Eaton is channeling Pope Francis in suggesting that our problems just may be God willed and we need to just learn to live with it and go with the flow, so to speak. 

Hmmmmm.  Well, this is certainly a different take on what it means to live Lutheran.  It makes me thankful for the somewhat hum drum world of the LCMS The Lutheran Witness.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Purgatory: What does this mean?

An explanation of Purgatory. . . and a reason for the Reformation. . . complements of another author writing to clarify the Roman Catholic teaching of Purgatory.  You read and tell me what you think:

To begin with, purgatory exists for two reasons: one, to punish sins for which reparation has not been done on earth. For example, if a person stole money and was not able to pay it back, that sum would have to be “repaired” before the soul enters heaven. All sin must be settled, in the course of justice. If a person was a bad example at parties, flirting or drinking too much, even if that person confessed those sins, because the damage is done, reparation cannot be made. Therefore, purgatory is a time for suffering to make up for those consequences of sins. There is something called the “effects of sin” also called the “matter of sin.” The effects of sins remain in the person—weakened conscience, weakened ability to deal with the passions, and so on. These imperfections must be gone before the person enters heaven, as only the perfect enter heaven. All dispositions which lead one to sin, all tendencies, must be rooted out and few people do this in their lifetime. All venial sins unconfessed before death also cause the suffering of purgatory, as one must be cleansed, therefore, for the effects of sin, the tendencies, the disposition, and the venial sins.

Forgiven mortal sins need reparation, and that is done in purgatory, if those sins were confessed and absolved. In addition, each person has a predominant fault, that fault which causes most of the sin in his life. This root fault rests in self-love and created disordered desires, “cupiditas,” which leads to rebellion in one’s soul. Rebellion towards God is called “superb.”

Unless one allows God to take one through the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit, where such spiritual infirmities and flaws are rooted out, one must go to purgatory.

Those in purgatory rejoice, embrace this suffering, this satispassion, because they increase in the love of God as they are purified. However, they cannot gain merit. The ability to gain merit for heaven ends with death. However, their love and virtue increase as they are cleansed of all flaws. One of the great sadnesses of those in purgatory, and for those in hell, an eternal gnawing, is the realisation of how high they would have been in the levels of holiness in heaven but for ignoring grace. This suffering turns to gratitude in purgatory as the souls see more clearly the mercy of God, as they now see the justice of God.

Second is the consideration of time in purgatory. Two types of time must be defined in order to understand the real time in purgatory. It is not like our time. There has been confusion about this in the past, as people think that when they make an indulgence which merits 30 days, that means 30 days off of purgatory—not so. It means that the prayer is equal to a physical penance which should last 30 days, as in the old times, when priests would give a 30 day pilgrimage as a penance, or 30 days without meat. The indulgence takes the place and is equal by the merit of the Church to those physical punishments.

Purgation takes time, so the time in purgatory is not short, unless one has made the Five First Saturdays, for example, or gained other purgatorial indulgences, such as the Divine Mercy indulgence. However, those indulgences take away the punishment due to sin, but not the effects of sin or the evil dispositions. Thus, one needs purgation, either in this world or the next. Apparently, St. Theresa of Lisieux was told by God that of all the persons she knew who has died In the convent, over all the years she lived there, only three had gone straight to heaven.

Theologians in Catholic teaching shows one that there are two types of time regarding purgatory. The first is “eviternity,” which means eternal duration or eternal existence. It is not the same as “eternal time,” which is the experience in heaven or hell. Eviternity is an in-between concept, between time as we know it by minutes, hours, days and years, and eternal time, both of which we understand. Eviternity has a beginning, so it is not eternal. Garrigou-Lagrange calls it “the perpetual present,” and we can understand that—a present moment which lasts a long, long time.

Discontinuous time is the time experienced by true mystics in ecstasy and the angels. Such persons can have a thought which lasts hours, but is only one spiritual instant. Both eviternity and discontinuous time are what the soul in purgatory experiences. All of us live in continuous time. God and the saints in heaven live in eternal time. The souls in purgatory live in eviternity and discontinuous time.

However, one can judge how long a soul may be in purgatory in terms of earthly time. I read one author which stated that the ordinary Catholic will experience purgatory for 40 years. If a person has held a high office, states Garrioug-Lagrange, referring to private revelations, that soul could be in purgatory for three or four centuries. One time, I asked God to release through my prayers, the forgotten soul who had been in purgatory the longest. A face and body came into my mind, that of a Conquistador of the 16th century. If this discernment was true, I was praying for a man who died as long ago as the 1500s—500 years ago! I did not doubt that some people, especially those who had death-bed conversions from lives of serious sin could be in purgatory for a very long time.

Sort of makes you long for the good old days when a dying penitent sinner heard "Today you shall be with Me in Paradise."  And then there are those who insist that what Lutherans teach of the atonement and of justification is an invention foisted upon Scripture.  Hmmmmm.  Very interesting.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A lack of hearing. . .

Where once it might have been said that the Word suffered from a lack of sources, today it suffers from a lack of hearers.  Oh, to be sure, we have the Word all around us but it has become captive to nearly everything else we filter into our ears through personal preference and our impatience that reads faster on the page than our ears can hear.  In the confusion of it all, we have forgotten what it means to hear, to listen.

While I understand why we do it, printing out the readings for the Divine Service (or, for that matter having Bibles in the pews for folks to turn to). distracts us from hearing the Word.  Remember that until modern times, the people of God encountered His Word not as a page in their hands but as a voice in their ear.  This is doubtless the expectation of St. Paul (Faith comes by hearing).  It was and is the history of Old and New Testament until the advent of modern education gave to all the ability to read and write and modern printing made the cost of such books accessible.

Now, lest you think I have gone off my rocker, I am not advocating for an end or even a restriction of books.  Look at the walls of my office.  Lord knows, I love books.  But I am advocating for hearing the Word, for the aural Word that enters our hearts and minds not through the eye but through the ear.  I grew up back when teachers spent part of their time with elementary age students reading to the class the great books and stories of old.  I still recall the sound of a teacher's voice reading Mr. Poppers Penguins (and, by the way, was most disappointed by the more recent movie of the same name).  Back in the dark ages when I was in Sunday school, the teacher began by simply reading the Bible story of the day.

Nowadays when we do hear the Bible read, it is in brief installments (called pericopes) at the weekly liturgy where we follow along on an insert or in the worship folder or Sunday bulletin or in the missalettes.  We seem unable to sit and listen without having something to focus our eye upon.  For us the Word of God is more typically a word on a page and not the oral Word.  On top of that, sustained reading aloud is rare -- whether of Scripture or anything else.  Most of our reading is individual, silent, and somewhat abstract.  We read and pause and daydream or think upon a word or phrase and in it all we are the ones in control of the process.  

Yet reading out loud is completely different. It is by nature a social act and not individual.  The words incarnate in us very differently through the eye and the mind than through the ear.  To be sure, there are imaginary faces that I have put with particular voices because of how I heard things read out loud.  For a time I enjoyed listening in my car to books aloud (not the kind you pick up at Cracker Barrel but through NPR and the voice of Dick Estell).  

When we hear the Bible read, the Word is literally enfleshed in a voice and a person.  It is not reading for entertainment or even for information but sacramental reading, the voice that reads is reading a Word that does what it says through the reading and hearing of that Word.  Literally God is at work in the reading and the hearer is not simply incorporating information into the mind but receiving the Word and the Spirit acting through that Word.

When we listen to the Bible at home, it has a similar effect.  Parents read the Bible stories to their  children not simply as reading to entertain but in their parental vocation to teach the faith to their children. Although we may surely listen while we do other things (like driving), it is quite another thing to sit and devote the fullness of one's attention to what speaks into the ear.  Multi-tasking has let us think that we are giving due attention to all things but there is something quite shocking when the Scriptures become mere background sounds, the way a TV, radio, I-Pod or other device provides a constant soundtrack in the background of our lives. The aural Bible ought to have the dignity of our full attention and not compete for it the way other things must constantly beg to be heard.

So my first appeal is to let go of that paper in your hand on Sunday morning and listen to hear the voice of God speak through His Word.  And listen in your own time to more extended portions of the Scripture.  And read it to your children.  Amazon Audible has versions but they are also available in various places.  Hear the Word of God. . . and keep it.  God's Word does not need to be animated by our imagination, it is animated by the Spirit. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Not imaginary. . .

The charge often laid against Luther and his spiritual heirs is that such talk of an invisible church is really an imaginary church -- something that does not have earthly reality but is only spiritual.  Others complain that this sets up a distinction between two churches -- one apparent where the Word is preached purely and faithfully and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's intention and the other one which is simply out there somewhere, inaccessible to eye or touch.  While it is true that later Lutheran dogmaticians made more of the terms visible and invisible than did Luther or can be explicitly found in the Lutheran Confessions, the roots of this distinction are ultimately Biblical and not Luther's.

The hidden or invisible church is a doctrine of comfort that acknowledges one cannot see the fullness of the church with the eye, nor can one separate the faithful from the hypocrite.  This emphasizes the expanse of the church throughout the world, among all nations, peoples, races, and jurisdictions but also beyond the scope of time and place and it acknowledges that until the Lord separates, these remain together in the visible assembly.  This church is one, one in Christ and one through Christ and not through human intention, work, or agreement.  Yet this una sancta is united with the visible church where the marks or signs are present.

The visible church is where the Word and the Sacraments are, where there are people who hear and believe the Gospel, where there are pulpit, font, and table.  Luther put it this way: “Not Rome or this or that place, but baptism, the sacraments, and the gospel are the signs by which the existence of the church in the world can be noticed externally. Wherever there is baptism and the gospel no one should doubt the presence of saints—even if they were only children in the cradle.” Against, from Luther:  “And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”  “Nor indeed are we dreaming about some platonic republic, as some have slanderously alleged. Instead, we teach that this church truly exists, consisting of true believing and righteous people scattered through the entire world. And we add its marks: the pure teaching of the gospel and the sacraments” (Ap VII:20).

Luther insists that this distinction is one that comes from the Lord Himself:  “The Lord Christ commands us not to embrace the false church and he himself distinguishes between two churches, a true one and a false one, in Matthew 7:15: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,’ etc. Where there are prophets, there are churches in which they teach. If the prophets are false, so also are the churches that believe and follow them.”

Luther appeals to the early church and insists that the confessors [the Lutherans] had the same baptism, sacrament, keys, preaching office, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, etc. as the ancient church. and concludes “Thus we have proved that we are the true, ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.”  What Luther and the Lutherans who are his heirs have refused to say is what Rome insists:  that outside this visible fellowship there is not salvation.

Part of the marks of the Church is not only adhering to the true doctrine (catholic) but also condemning false doctrine (heresy).  In contrast to other reformers, Luther does not equate purity of life with a sign or mark of the church.  The life of the church may leave much to be desired but the doctrine must not be sinful or reproachable.  Among the Pietists, this emphasis is reversed; the holiness of life is held perhaps even higher than pure or true doctrine and they held the visible and outward body to be less important and more subjective than did Luther.  The church is never invisible because the Word and Sacraments are never invisible though her boundaries may remain hidden and until Christ returns in His glory.

Rome and its defenders begin with the presumption that the church is only rightly visible and that its borders (visible or hidden) are coterminous with those in communion with the Pope.  They leave a small crack in the door that those outside the true visible church of Rome might be saved.  Some of Luther's spiritual heirs have wrongly overemphasized the hidden or invisible church to the point where the visible church is somewhat of an afterthought or secondary.  That is an abuse not only of Luther but especially against the Confessions which do not explicitly use either term.  In essence, if the church is everywhere it is nowhere.  And to those who follow this dead end, the invisible church is imaginary and there is no compelling move to live beyond this hidden kingdom.  For Luther and his rightful heirs, the church is where Christ is -- where His Word speaks, where He absolves, where He baptizes, and where He feeds us His body and blood.  We posit the church in the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments with the pastoral office that preaches this Word and administers these Sacraments, and not an office alone (the papacy) or a man (the pope).

Chemnitz, the second Martin, spends a great deal of ink on the terms visible and invisible.  “The church is the assembly of men who have been called and gathered through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments out of the world to the kingdom of God. In this assembly the elect according to the foreknowledge of the Father are found, namely, those who truly and perseveringly believe in Christ, among whom are mingled the nonsaints, who nevertheless profess the same doctrine.”  In other words, this helpful distinction acknowledges that it is God's eye and His judgment that alone discerns the heart and that it is not our duty to harvest the wheat or, as our Lord warns, we would be unable to distinguish them and end up tearing up the wheat with the tares.  This distinction is temporary until the Lord would send His reapers into the harvest and separate the wheat from the chaff.  So, as I began, speaking of the hidden or invisible church is a doctrine of comfort, like election, and not something which places duty or responsibility upon those who see the church where Christ means her to be seen -- around His Word and Sacraments.

Christians rejoice that wherever the gospel is found, there is the Church. “God be praised,” writes Luther, “a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd’ [John 10:3]” (SA III:12, 2). In a very real sense and not in some abstract or imaginary sense, then, the church enjoys this complete and perfect unity wherever anyone hears the voice of Christ, even if we rarely see or experience this unity here in time.